Finding another word for "experimental" / Lawrence Upton

the problem

The word "experimental" is often attached to poetry as a descriptor; but I wonder if the word conveys anything useful.

It, "experimental" itself, has a range of related meanings which are of considerable use in a variety of contexts. Unfortunately, poetry is rarely one of those contexts. Even when the poet herself has chosen to describe her own work as experimental, one remains unsure what is meant.

A while ago I declined to publish an unsolicited submission to RWC magazine. Unexpectedly, the author wrote back, demanding to know my reasons, sending a further i.r.c. with the demand.

I explained, briefly, that I had read the work, contrary to the expressed opinion of the angry poet; I had read it several times, without being able to make anything of it or find any merit in it.

This brought a further letter, without a further i.r.c.. If its brevity and concision mean anything, I had made the poet really angry. Of course I had found his poem difficult, he told me; of course I did not understand; the work was experimental. I believe if the message had been sent voice mail then the word would have been broken down ex-per-i-men-tal for easier assimilation by an idiot editor. Clearly, the poet finished, he had been wrong in believing that I am a publisher of experimental poetry.

At no time was I told what the poet's experiment was or what the results of it had been or why that pattern of words which he had sent me should be published.

I do not want to limit "experimental" to its science laboratory meaning, but I am not happy with its meaning being extended to "work which should be published because of its innate but indefinable virtues indicated solely by the use of this word when used by the author".

In the 1970s, when it was based at the National Poetry Centre, Bob Cobbing's workshop was advertised as Experimental Workshop. The area of experimentation was even suggested - visual one week, sound another, for example. I often took part then and often performed without a clear aim in mind. This was the kind of experimentation which a child undertakes, nearer to play than to science; but play and science are closely related. Everyone there knew what they were letting themselves in for and consented. I learned a lot. With or without prior aims, one was aware that some things did not work. Much of what happened was not seen again, at least not in that form, and, therefore, not without substantial reworking; but we were learning from each other and ourselves.

I have published work by others of which I have had very little understanding. It is a negative capability process. In the case of one piece which I published in Sub Voicive Poetry, I told the poet that I did not grasp the work's processes - to be told that really she did not either. In that case, however, I was guided by the pleasure I took in the work. I had what might be called a gut reaction to it and that was why it was published. In that sense, I suppose, I was undertaking experimental publishing.

Sub Voicive Poetry is listed in The Poetry Kit as experimental. That's the word TPK's editor, Ted Slade, has chosen to use. I have never described Sub Voicive Poetry magazine as experimental. I think I disagree with Ted. While SVP does publish visually emphatic poetry, that is only a small part of its output; if SVP is experimental then most of the magazines I know are too - and what, then, does the word mean?

On the other hand, when Spencer Selby includes RWC in his List of Experimental Magazines, I can see an argument. I have sought, usually without success, to publish works-in-progress and early drafts of works where the process of composition is foregrounded.

potential alternatives

The term "investigative poetry" might be more appropriate than "experimental poetry" in some contexts, but Ed Sanders' prior usage takes it into other important areas which are not those usually misrepresented as experimental. I would rather not dilute or confuse yet another term.

Gilbert Adair's coinage of "linguistically-innovative poetry" has been rendered largely useless for explanatory commentary by being appropriated to meanings he never intended which are also at variance with those he did.

When such appropriation happens, as with "experimental", one has to know beforehand what the writer means by the term in order to know what the writer means.

Paul Dutton has said:

"I applaud your resolve to include "experimental" poets in the Sub Voicive series. I wonder if we can find another word than "experimental" though. It has such unsavoury connotations, implying to many that the individual is just fooling aimlessly about and trying anything; while suggesting, at the other extreme, (as Derek Bailey has pointed out) that some theory is being tested and proved. I've been trying out terms like "radical effects" or "extreme effects" poets, but those seem so cumbersome. Maybe someone will come up with the right word one of these days."

Whether or not "radical effects" or "extreme effects" are cumbersome, they might also give the wrong impression in some applications. (I think that they might mislead people about some of Paul's own work!) The one reminds me of Eric Mottram's use of the term "radical poetics", though not of his coining, which loops back towards Sanders "investigative poetry", and is, like "linguistically-innovative" used in such a wide variety of contexts that it is too vague now. The other excludes much that I would wish to include. There is a great deal of work in, for instance, visually-emphatic poetries which might be called experimental by some which is far from extreme in its effects. [I am, nowadays, trying out "visually-emphatic poetry" in place of "visual poetry" because of worries about the vagueness of "visual poetry" as a term.]

I want experiment to continue and I would like to limit the word experiment to what is experimental. I also want to be able to speak indicatively of the work which is often called experimental but which is not.

Harry Gilonis met this problem head on and usefully at the end of an introduction to a reading by the poet Rob MacKenzie, who is also a research scientist:

Lester Bowie, trumpeter with the Arts Ensemble of Chicago, always wears a white lab coat on stage; when asked why, retorts - pun not intended - he considers his playing to be in the literal sense "experimental"; he's working with material, testing hypotheses; he is - his phrase - a "research trumpeter. In a like vein, ladies and gentlemen - Rob MacKenzie, research poet.

And I have a suggestion of my own. Approaching the problem from another direction, I see in what I regard as experimental poetry the desire to try new techniques and, to quote myself elsewhere, of myself, "to stop doing it once I know what I am doing". It seems to me that this is a restless approach so perhaps the products might be called "restless poetry", whether or not particular poems are truly experimental. The qualities implied by "restless" which I have noted would apply to many poetries and not just work in visual and sound experimentation.

"Restless" too might have some connotational relationships to "investigative" and "radical".

I tried out the term "restless poetry" when I introduced Alistair Noon at SVP and he seemed quite happy to have his work described as restless poetry, quoting me back to the audience in amicable terms. So the word has been launched.


Final thoughts

Wide agreement in such matters is probably impossible so, no matter how much one might wish, as I do, for a terminology upon which we are all agreed, that is not going to happen. Therefore, rather than one dead term sometimes used dismissively, let us have a range of terms, challenging us to consider the meaning of what we are reading and what we are saying. Mine, for now, is restless.


Copyright © Lawrence Upton 1999. [The original texts by Paul Dutton and Harry Gilonis are published at the Sub Voicive Poetry website, are quoted by permission and remain copyright of their authors.]